Money, gender and power revisited
It is tempting to read the working of power into these relationships based on the arrangements the couples made for their financial affairs. For example, one female couple had an arrangement where the flat they lived in was in just one person’s name and where the incoming partner also paid her wages into an account which was solely in her partner’s name. Another couple had an arrangement where one paid the mortgage and utility bills while she paid for the daily consumables. Such an arrangement could seriously jeopardise her financial status later on if they were to separate. We have also already referred above to numerous instances where one partner entirely conceded all responsibility for money management to their partner. From a gender (and indeed a simple legal) perspective, all of these patterns would be seen as dangerously disempowering. Yet of course, they were not seen as such by the parties themselves.
What is at stake in the interpretation of these negotiations between couples around money is how power is theorised. A classic structuralist approach might look at the relative income and employment status of the individuals in the relationship. Exploring access to social and cultural capital might reveal differential positioning, meaning that one partner could be both more influential and also more safeguarded against risk. Adopting a more interactionist approach, the exercise of power in small daily exchanges might reveal that the person who takes responsibility for financial management is the most burdened rather than most privileged partner. But as we also note above, the gendered sameness of the couples means that understanding how these things work cannot be read from a template which presumes that one partner is already more vulnerable than the other because of their gender.
We have noted that the typical arrangement for both male and female couples was to have a joint account for joint costs, combined with separate current accounts which allowed a degree of independent spending. But some individuals volunteered that they also had separate personal savings accounts which were treated as if they were something separate from everyday conjoined finances. It was also the case that a tiny number of the men (2) and women (2) expressed a desire for totally separate financial arrangements notwithstanding their civil partnership:
It’s separate. And I think that’s probably a hangover from, you know, the years of our relationship when Robert felt he was dependent and, you know, he knows my PIN numbers, you know, if he ever needs any money, I’ll just give him money or whatever. But, you know, there’s independence there, so he has things in his name. The bills are sort of in individual names, separate bank accounts.
We have separate accounts but we, we have separate accounts and because everything was already set up, mainly because this is my house and was my house and even when [former partner] and I were here together, it was all just in my name because I came up here first and moved up here, so that’s just remained the same. So everything just goes out of my account and Linda just puts some money into my account.
Many couples spoke of the importance of an ideal of independence, but Daniel and Robert, and Natalie and Linda were the exceptions because very few actually carried this ideal through into keeping their financial affairs entirely separate. Moreover, even where the system of joint accounts with separate personal accounts was the norm, this did not stop partners criticising each other for ‘inappropriate’ spending, nor did it mean that partners felt they could just spend as they wished even from their own accounts. As Ashby and Burgoyne (2008) have pointed out, what people feel about money and how they manage it is immensely complicated and it is essential to go behind the actual arrangements in order to understand the purposes a couple may have for organising money they way they do. But we would also add that it is not enough to focus on the couple alone because, as we suggest above, individuals import into their relationships experiences of how their own parents managed money. More than this, the individual’s sense of self is bound up with money and its moral connotations. For our couples, this was brought strongly into perspective because of the significance of debt. Over half (56 per cent) of all our couples were dealing with debt (excluding mortgages) in some way or another, and this meant that an individual’s moral calibre could be under intensive scrutiny. The existence of the debt could also mean that plans had to be postponed and it was impossible for couples to move their relationship forwards by, for instance, buying a property or moving to a new area.
Money was therefore about far more than understanding the workings of gender and power because our focus on how individuals and couples related to money opened up a more panoramic vision of everyday relationships and also treated money as an embedded emotional currency (Nyman and Dema, 2007). Of equal importance, tracing money sheds light on the ways in which individuals became couples because the sharing of money also shows how trust works, how caring can operate, and how a merging of material possessions can be achieved. It is at the very heart of how people can both become a couple and yet retain a sense of (independent) self. We disagree with Burgoyne et al. (2011: 703), however, when they suggest that non-heterosexuals seem ‘able to both write and enact their own financial "scripts"’ because, even allowing for the caveats they provide, we did not find scope for this kind of freedom from cultural, social or biographical constraint.